The Mayor of London, while renowned for his overtly eccentric discourse, somehow often manages to avoid the much more serious observation – viewed, as Mr Johnson notes, as a “black mark” against politicians – that he is an elitist from a background of privilege. Thus it was that after a speech on Margaret Thatcher addressed at the Centre for Policy Studies, news companies pounced on the more headline-making of his comments, notably greed being “valuable” (as a spur to economic activity), and the claim that it was “futile” to try to end inequality.
I have offered a link to The Guardian and its article above because I was particularly disappointed upon witnessing their typical approach to such events played out in full. The newspaper is left-wing; Mr Johnson is a Conservative politician giving a speech in commemoration of the policies of an extremely right-wing Prime Minister. It is therefore wholly unremarkable that The Guardian will find his opinions unsettling at first glance. Of course the paper knows that its readership will do so too – pandering to revenue-raising sales despite intellectual inaccuracy is the essence of lazy journalism.
Mr Johnson’s speech, while tailored to his bombastic style and purposely designed to draw attention, was actually much more nuanced than it would appear if all one heard about it were the claims made in newspaper headlines. The nuances come in various forms. Firstly, his argument was drastically misunderstood – relatively neo-liberal though it may have been, it was also progressive and a call for awareness of class inequalities, not an ignorance of them. Secondly, delivering such a speech at a time of an exceedingly boring exchange between leading political figures over economic policies frames a plausible conservative standpoint on contemporary issues better than his critics have given him credit for.
So first, the argument; much of the Mayor’s speech was targeted at examining what a Thatcherite approach to current socio-economic problems might look like. Yet to explain these problems, he needed to provide an explanation of how he viewed them. Naturally, accusations of gaffe against Mr Johnson have flowed forth because of his comment on the IQ of certain individuals in society. He referenced figures claiming that 16% of people in society have an IQ below 85, while only 2% have one above 130. I will make my interpretation of this starting point perfectly clear – although the reference to IQ specifically is a provocative approach, since it seems clinical and dehumanising, these facts (if the figures are accurate) are true and undeniable. People’s raw ability differs and it is absurd to deny this claim in the face of scientific evidence or to attack those who accept it.
Now, in order to save him and, I fear, myself (though I by no means intend to track his position with my own for much longer) from premature denunciation as closed-minded elitists, the succeeding points made by the Mayor must be examined, along with a lesson in egalitarian theory. Mr Johnson raised the figures alongside a claim that the effects of capitalism – creating substantial income inequality – take place upon a society already influenced by natural inequalities. This too, I feel, is patently true. To claim that people happen to have received different levels of ability by way of “genetic luck” is a standard approach to advancing substantive equality in political theory, and while it has its theoretical critics, the idea is completely distinct from any belief that people should stay at the bottom of society if they haven’t got the brains to cut it, which I do not think most serious people would ever say. People’s raw ability to produce is a totally different fact from their moral worth and entitlement as equal beings.
Nevertheless, it was taken badly. Nick Clegg espoused that “to talk about us as if we are a sort of breed of dogs, a species I think he calls it … the danger is if you start taking such a deterministic view of people because they have got a number attached to them, in this case an IQ number, they are not going to rise to the top of the cornflake packet.”
A word on the cornflake analogy – Mr Johnson used this metaphor to describe society, with height in the packet corresponding to the level of income and according position on the economic scale. What he was saying was only deterministic in the sense that people, without some sort of state-orientated help, will be left to the mercy of market forces beyond their direct control and will fall into subordinate positions with low income, generating inequality, which in turn is unjust. I can fathom neither why this is so controversial nor why Mr Clegg should disagree with it as an assertion, aside from as a method of political point-scoring, or a misunderstanding. He repudiated Mr Johnson’s position, saying “Our job is surely in politics not simply to say we are going to hive off one group of people and put them in one category and kind of basically say they are parked, there’s not much we can do.” The Mayor wasn’t saying this at all – he was trying to state exactly what we can do, and advocating that we shake up the cornflake packet.
Where I disagree with him is in one half of this analysis of what we can do, as well as how large a problem inequality represents. For starters, as a Conservative, he disagrees with having all that much taxation on the rich. This is the essence of the ‘greed is good’ philosophy – we supposedly need large amounts of wealth to be possessed by some individuals to stimulate investment and drive the economy. Given the questionability of trickle-down economics, Mr Johnson’s ideas are not wholly agreeable to most people (myself obviously included), though I do not intend to provide a critique for now. Importantly, he did recognise the emotional case for alleviating pervasive inequalities, despite his conviction in the reasoned case for maintaining them to an extent. His belief – we need to tackle the “freezing of the canals of opportunity.” This can be done through much better education and a focus on increasing social mobility, as well as shaking up entrenched groups such as those elites with a monopoly on acquiring educations at Oxbridge and the various private feeder schools. What he presented, bringing me to my second point, was an agreeable position for the right-wing in a time of a stagnant and distressing socio-economic situation.
Austerity v Cost of Living is the most wearisome topic in politics at the moment, but the Mayor has skirted around it. While I disagree with Mr Johnson’s belief that we needn’t provide much redistributive aid to those who are badly off – indeed, I am committed to the idea that socioeconomic justice demands it – I do think his opinions on social mobility and equality of opportunity frame another, very important element of the required approach to socioeconomic issues today. Though it is no surprise that he opposes high taxation and supports City-driven investment, it is refreshing to see leaders on the right thinking seriously about social mobility.